16 March 2010

Review: Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari

Journalist Peter Neils is back in Taiwan on another assignment, this time with a young photographer, Josh Pickett, to write about a Buddhist temple. When they have a couple of days to themselves, Neils suggests a visit to Taiwan's most famous national park, Taroko Gorge.

On a school bus of Japanese middle-school students, girls are gossiping about boys, boys are flirting with girls, and almost all are wondering how they got stuck going to Taroko Gorge for their school trip--Hawaii would have been so much more fun.

By the end of day, three girls are missing, and the American men may have been the last to see them. Before the Taiwanese detective has finished the preliminary questioning, the students, teacher, park manager, and journalists have each come up with his or her own theory. Distrust, accusations, fear, and ultimately the truth have life-altering effects on all those involved in the incident.

Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari explores so much more than the disappearance of three fifteen-year-old girls. The story is told from at least four viewpoints: Peter Neils, experienced American journalist; Michiko Kamakiri, insecure Japanese schoolgirl; Tohru Maruyama, responsible (male) Japanese class representative; and Hsien Chao, Taiwanese detective. Each perspective is colored by the personal history of the character and by private truths that perhaps shouldn't be shared.

As we piece together the lives of a handful of diverse individuals who were involved in the events of a few hours in a national park, we are forced to consider several larger issues, including fate, religion, and multicultural contact. Can we control our own fate or do seemingly harmless lies, misunderstandings, and thoughtless comments have power over others? Once Detective Chao comes on the scene, suspicions are quickly formed and expressed. Later, we wonder if the accusers are responsible for how the innocent react.

Ritari examines fate in terms of both interpersonal interactions and religious and spiritual experience. Although Neils claims he stopped believing in God when he was fourteen, he acts as a hub or bridge connecting the Buddhist monks he meets, his Catholic missionary brother, and Pickett's druggie American version of Buddhism. Among the students, Michiko plays a similar role as she tries on various spiritual capes and struggles with understanding a classmate's immersion in Mahikari, a "new religion."

Two other themes found in Taroko Gorge are intergenerational issues and how culture and history affect the way the Japanese, Taiwanese, and Americans respond to each other and to the emergency of the missing schoolgirls. The novel can be read on a number of different levels, and it is difficult to resist the temptation to immediately restart the book after finishing the last page.

Although we learn a truth about the incident, Ritari leaves us on our own to ponder the future of the main characters.

I felt something. But what it was, I didn't care to think about. Every day thousands of prayers were poured inside, for the living and dead, recovery from illness, recovery of lost things, patience, wisdom, courage. Millions of prayers if you counted everyone across the world. And where did they go? They must go somewhere. Nothing in this world really disappears. (p. 239)

Taroko Gorge at Powell's
Taroko Gorge at Amazon
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Published by Unbridled Books, July 2010
ISBN-13: 9781936071654

Challenges: New Author, eBook, Global, 2010, 100+
YTD: 24
Source: Review (see review policy)
Rating: A

I read Taroko Gorge as part of the Spotlight Series, developed to "help . . . spread the word on quality books published by small press publishers." For more information and to join future spotlight projects, visit the series's blog.


Kris 3/16/10, 10:25 AM  

Sounds like a very interesting book to read, thanks for adding to my wish list. haha!

Chris 3/16/10, 10:59 AM  

Sounds intriguing. Looks like you picked a good one for the tour.

Aarti 3/16/10, 11:00 AM  

Wow, this sounds really good! I like when mysteries apply to deeper situations, not just the event at hand. It looks like Taroko Gorge really succeeds on this level.

Julie P. 3/16/10, 11:14 AM  

Sounds interesting. I enjoy reading books that make me think!

bermudaonion 3/16/10, 1:30 PM  

That book sounds like it has a lot going for it. I bet I'd like it. Thanks for the great review!

Aths 3/16/10, 3:34 PM  

That is a seriously good book! I have to look into this. Nice review!

Darlene 3/16/10, 3:59 PM  

I've never heard of this book but it sure sounds intriguing. Thanks for the review Beth.

farmlanebooks 3/16/10, 5:29 PM  

This sounds like the sort of thing I love! I've added it to my wishlist!

Cat 3/16/10, 10:11 PM  

This definitely sounds something different - one to add to the list.

Glad you enjoyed your Unbridled read!

nat @book, line, and sinker 3/17/10, 12:26 AM  

i haven't heard of this book or the 'spotlight series' tour--both sound so great! it's always exciting to see buzz about a book that might have been overlooked. great review--i'm writing the title down on my summer 'to read' list. :)

Alice Teh 3/17/10, 2:36 AM  

This one sounds like one I'd love to read. I like the storyline. I'll put this into my wish list. Thanks for the review!

Veens 3/17/10, 5:14 AM  

Gosh Beth, this one sounds like a good read! I mean I feel it is true that we react to different people based on the history we know about them or things we have been "told" about them!

I am sure this will be an interesting and intriguing one! Great review.

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) 3/17/10, 8:27 AM  

Sounds like a good one! I also like that the storyline for the are is a bit different than the ones I have been reading. A lot focuses on war, so missing girls is and interesting story to base a lot of these questions.

S. Krishna 3/17/10, 10:14 AM  

This sounds really interesting! As you know, I've become more interested in mysteries this year so I'll have to check it out.

Dorte H 3/17/10, 10:39 AM  

This one sounds interesting for several reasons. Thank you for a fine review that has made me wonder about culture and responsibility.

Margot at Joyfully Retired 3/17/10, 11:35 AM  

A story from four different perspectives could be quite good if done well. It sounds like this one is done well.

Christy (A Good Stopping Point) 3/17/10, 5:03 PM  

This is the one that I wanted to read for the Spotlight Series but my library didn't have it. I'm glad to hear it's good!

Jenners 3/17/10, 8:13 PM  

This sounds very intriguing and complex and I love multiple viewpoint books.

Nymeth 3/18/10, 4:28 AM  

This sounds like my kind of mystery - the kind that's so much more than a mystery. Fantastic review.

Emm 3/18/10, 10:46 AM  

Gosh, that sounds like an excellent book and I hadn't heard of that author before. I love the way you set your reviews out!!

Tina 3/20/10, 2:32 PM  

This one has been on my radar for awhile now. Your review is perfect---let's me know what the book is about, why I will like it, but doesn't spoil the story by giving away too much. I'm definitely off to find this one.

Tribute Books 3/23/10, 12:54 PM  

Sounds definitely like a good read to me.

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